Monday, 29 April 2013

The problem of long-term All Black contracts

What if the All Blacks are ruining rugby in New Zealand? A strange question I know but the more I watch Super Rugby and see the  on-going under performance of many contracted All Blacks the more I am convincing myself that long-term All Black contracts are  the bane of Super Rugby.
 It is a cliche that it harder to get out of the All Blacks than to get into the team  and this is even more so now that they are increasingly first and foremost a branding opportunity for the NZRFU. Yet  what eventuates is a situation whereby  many long-term contracted All Blacks appear to play with a focus on the international calendar to the detriment of their super rugby team.  Yet can one really blame them? They play in the expectation that they will most probably get picked for the All Black squad and continue to receive their All Black contract as the NZRFU has too much invested in the branding opportunities of a totem pole of signature players. So they play wary of injuries and the fabled
burn-out', they play looking first and foremost to peak for the internationals. Yet this means the fans who go each week to watch them play for their franchises get an under-performing 'product'; it means the team-mates of these players have play with deliberately self-limiting players.

The issue is not one that is going to go away when there is a dual tier professional rugby system whereby the All Blacks are on a contract system to keep them playing in the country and operating as the brand-focus of the NZRFU. As I have argued, we need a truly professional system that allows the free exchange of location of players. You could argue that the NZRFU is merely protecting its product investment by requiring All Blacks to stay and play within NZ- and the long-term contracts are a way to ensure that players do stay here. Yet perhaps we play too many internationals against the same teams. The tri-nations was dreadfully stale and while the addition of Argentina has brightened it considerably we get an overdose of relentless hyperbolic nationalism that is really just product marketing. These are not really teams chosen on who has been playing the best in the competition of super rugby, they are instead teams chosen in the main even before the super rugby season starts.
 Perhaps I am just over  the saturation of commodified nationalism; perhaps I am tired of seeing under performing 'international' players; perhaps I just want to see the best-performing players, week-in and week-out at super rugby level rewarded with the chance to play an international against the best performers from elsewhere. Perhaps I just want to see less but more meaningful international rugby matches.
 If the All Blacks really are ruining NZ rugby- a different thing from the brand of NZ rugby- then  perhaps we need to rethink what the All Blacks really mean - and represent.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A proper All Black Trial- and rethinking super rugby

Like many of my generation I remember All Black Trials with a nostalgic fondness. Part of the appeal was the clear delineation of the names of the teams- the Probables were the shadow All Blacks and the Possibles were those who might, if they played well, force the changes and make the All Blacks- even if only for the mid-week dirt-trackers if going on an overseas tour.
 Pre-Trial there was always the interest of playing selector drafting your own Possibles and Probables and then, post-game quickly drafting your own All Black team and ticking off the names as they were, always, ponderously read-out by some inarticulate official temporarily stunned to be the attention of a media scrum.
 Of course there was much less rugby in those days and rugby was local, provincial and not the second-tier international of Super Rugby.
 Yet there is something wrong with professional rugby when players can  effectively go through the motions for their secondary employer- the provincial franchises- secure in the belief that their primary employer- the NZRFU will pick them for the ABs. What complicates matters is the way that super rugby is not really professional in being an open market. To play for the ABs you must play in NZ and so  our professional rugby teams are effectively a closed shop of players -and increasingly a closed and limited shop of talent. The NZRFU is really the grand patriotic collectivist corporation and the super franchises are the shop-fronts for the collectivist brand and product.
 Yet consider an alternative: what if , to make the ABs a player had to play for any Super 15 franchise or play in the Japanese league? Ideally of course it would be any player playing professionally anywhere in the world but let's take things one step at a time. The problems with super rugby franchises is that they tend to draw on local- and national players- but if we consider English football, American football, baseball, basketball then players are highly mobile and teams are composed of players from all over the world.
If super rugby  was truly opened up then we would get global players playing a global game. Yes we might lose top players to high-paying clubs but not necessarily. Who players may choose to play with- and under - would become more variable. Super teams composed of a variety of players from around the world would be a sign of true professionalism; what we have at the moment is really professional provincialism- and rugby is suffering.
 So imagine an AB trial whereby players from across super rugby franchises and those in Japan are the pool to choose from. NZ players, by playing outside NZ and in combination with players from elsewhere will develop their game. Ideally we could call upon those playing in Europe as well and then rugby would be truly professional- and the AB trial would be completely meaningful.
 The support for the 6 nations championship puts our tri/now 4-nations often to shame; and the northern hemisphere-southern hemisphere season split means that northern players could come and play south for internationals. The way George Smith is playing is testament that good players playing outside the nation-state are more than capable of still representing their nation.
 So bring back the AB Trial- but only if super-rugby and NZ-representative criteria are reformed- and truly professionalised.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

on the twisted economics of fandom

Part of being a fan is sticking with a team through all the ups and downs not only of a single season but over multiple seasons. Once the choice of team is made the logic of fandom tends to demand that this is a pact of loyalty. Yet this is not ever really a reciprocal loyalty. Fans are in fact pledging loyalty to a business, a corporation. This is a type of economic exchange in which the hard-core fans continue their identity, association and, let's be clear, purchase of a product that to all intent and purposes fails to deliver on the often extravagant promises. No only do we pay to attend, we then pay to have a limited, overpriced choice of food and beverages, we pay to be subjected to inane and amateur pre and mid-game 'entertainment', we pay for a decidedly limited 'programme' and all of those before we watch the game. So we do this because of the expectation that 'our' team will deliver- if not the winning of the championship, then at least the winning of the conference- or at poor last, the winning of the game. Even beneath this we hope to experience- even if in a lost game - those moments of transcendent excitement, agility, brilliance, courage and skill that will survive the often mundane play that occurs in most sporting encounters. In effect we  purchase  brief moments of transcendence, encountered in collective experiences of transgressive identity. This is tribal transcendence, in which the team represents, however briefly, the possibilities that we, the tribe believe somehow embody 'us'.
The owners however have a different outlook. I have been reading Dave Zirin's incisively brilliant and angry "Bad Sports. How the owners are ruining the games we love" (Scribner, 2010). Zirin is one of those rare sportswriters who takes the analysis into a wider engagement with politics, economics, society and culture. In short, this is how sports writing ought be be- but too often isn't. Zirin is a sports critic- or rather, a writer of sports criticism- in the same way others are critics of literature, or society, or culture. Zirin's concern is that the owners, in so blatantly and brutally treating sports as a business- and in demanding public money for stadiums- are expressing complete disdain for the fans.

 Fans are mugs and idealists all at once- we want to believe the best, the impossible- yet in doing so we are often taken for a ride by the business of the 'team'. We can choose not to turn up, not to watch- yet, by our own twisted logic- that the owners count upon- we feel disloyal if we do so. The constant changes in team uniforms are part of this. I refuse to buy a team jersey because in the end all I am doing is giving even more money to the business of the team. Yet I will continue to attend in the spirit of hope that, however briefly, this team, these players, will provide a moment of transcendence and excitement that I can, in all honestly, respond to in an utterly transgressive manner. Because fandom is , if we are honest, the experience of transgressive behaviour- in many forms, behaviour that, if encountered outside of the game, would seem even stranger than when we do it within the bounded confines of the game. It is a site for and sight of irrationality. And this is what professional sport counts on- the willingness to purchase participation within a bounded environment of transgressive irrationality.

Monday, 8 April 2013

the sorry saga of highlanders rugby- and question of crowds

After another bumbling effort, this time against a Blues team that sought to play integrated, coherent rugby, it has become apparent that the Highlanders are destined for a truly horrific season. Taine Randall, on Re-union,  identified the failures of the loose forwards as the central reason for their troubles. And it is true  in that only John Hardie was- and is- truly consistent and playing at a Super 15 level of that trio. Eliot Dixon with ball in hand has the look of a a young Murray Mexted on the charge, but he lacks all those other skills that made Mexted such a great player. Even more so, Dixon seems to lack the rugby brain that has allowed Mexted to to successfully succeed with IRANZ. Dixon is in that level of solid ITM Cup player who cannot make a sustained leap up a level. he lacks the basic awareness of what his position demands. This is increasingly common as too many players stall at ITM cup- or semi-pro level. The talent base in NZ is never as large as we may wish to believe it to be- and demographics is the central answer. There is a limit on the number of players capable of playing successfully at a top professional level. we see this also with the number of second-tier players who struggle with the Rebels and the Force. Or, those who disappear to Japan and even there have middling careers.  As for  Hoeta, he is a sad case of player picked for the All Blacks out of necessity and a small pool of possibilities. He never was All Black material- and definitely is not now. He is, to put it bluntly, a stupid player doing stupid things, mistaking idiocy for aggression and bad attitude for ability.
 Yet the problems are far greater.
Nonu's limitations as a player- and individual- are increasingly evident. He needs both a quality, directional first five and centre to be able to do what he does best- which is to play an instinctive, individual game. Against the Blues he played stupidly- and selfishly. He will probably head off-shore at the end of the season before his 'brand' is too tarnished. Also expect him to go to the easier league of Japan where he can dominate by sheer presence alone. In Europe he would be too easily shut down.
  Even more worryingly, Smith at half-back is looking increasingly like a one-season All Black. What was exciting about his game- the speed of pass- is looking more and more like the one-dimensional offering he has to make. Behind a pack under pressure and with indecisive backs outside him it is increasingly, and sadly evident, that he done not bring enough mental tightness nor rugby vision to  his game- in the end he is just a passing machine.
 Overall what the Highlanders demonstrate is that  NZ can really only provide  4 top-tier super rugby teams. Likewise Australia can - at a stretch- provide four, and South Africa four also. What is needed is an intermediate conference below Super Rugby - or, as was successfully done with the ITM cup, split the  Super 15 into a upper and lower division with promotion relegation to upper/lower at the end of the season.

The other issue for the Highlanders is the white elephant stadium. There is only a need for a single large rugby stadium in NZ- and Dunedin is not the place to have it.  Sky TV, large screen tvs,  and night games all mean Super rugby games fail to fill their stadiums. even the Crusaders ground struggles to fill to its 17,000 capacity. 17,000 should be the limit for any rugby ground outside the main one- which should be in Auckland given demographics. Christchurch's planned large stadium is only going to be an on-going burden on rate-payers and the rugby-going public. It- like most grounds- will struggle to be filled. what NZ rugby needs to do is have a look at South Africa and consider how the Stormers can get 48,000 to an afternoon game against the Crusaders- or how the Sharks and Bulls can fill their stadiums. Even the reds seem to be able to attract larger crowds. Yes these are larger cities than most NZ ones- but there are other, social and cultural factors at play. How do we get fans off the couch and into the stands- unless NZ rugby seriously considers this we are doomed to rugby payed increasingly for virtual fans in half-empty stadiums. It may not matter to Sky TV but it should be of concern to NZ rugby.